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Farm sector wants debt deal soon

As the contentious debt ceiling negotiations in Washington approach the eleventh hour, the nation’s top farm and commodity groups are hoping to slip a letter under President Barack Obama’s door.

“As organizations that have a stake in agriculture and a robust rural economy, we urge a timely resolution to the ongoing debt ceiling negotiations,” says the letter, dated July 19.

The letter, organized by National Farmers Union and also signed by 33 other key groups, asks the President, and the majority and minority leaders in the House and Senate for fair treatment and an agreement that’s big enough to give ag committees clear direction in writing the next farm bill.

“A larger number on the debt ceiling would be consistent with what we’re asking in our letter,” Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said in a telephone interview with Tuesday.

If smaller cuts come out of the agreement, “then we’d have to come back in six months and do this all over again,” Johnson said, referring to the Congress and the White House. That uncertainty would make writing a farm bill very difficult.

The letter points out that last year agricultural spending was cut by $6 billion.

“Agriculture is prepared to take a proportionate share of budget cuts provided everything is on the table,” the letter says.

Exactly what that would be remains a moving target but Johnson took hope from reports Tuesday that the bipartisan “Gang of Six” in the Senate had put together an ambitious goal of cutting $3.7 trillion from the federal budget over the next decade.

Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a member of the Gang who had left the group, was back in. Coburn also released his own $9 trillion plan Monday. It includes more than $900 million in revenue from eliminating tax breaks--including the ethanol and biodiesel tax credits. In a statement, Coburn said he expects criticism but released it  “to show the American people what is possible and necessary.”

The farm groups are hoping that the debt ceiling deal doesn’t get into the specifics the way Coburn does. Coburn, for example, would eliminate all commodity programs—Direct Payments, ACRE, SURE—and leave crop insurance as the remaining safety net. And he would slice conservation programs by 60%.

“You think we’re going to be better off by not worrying about conservation,” Johnson said of Coburn’s ideas. “Look at the weather we’ve been having lately.”

It’s those kinds of decisions that the ag groups want to be left to the House and Senate agriculture committees.

“Any decision to reduce agriculture spending must allow the Senate and House Agriculture Committees to determine how the reductions are made. These Committees have the expertise to best evaluate specific programs and to include any changes in the 2012 Farm Bill in a manner that does not disrupt long-term commitments reflected in current farm legislation,” says the letter.

The signers of the letter are a Who’s Who of agriculture. They include the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Corn Growers Association and other commodity groups representing soybeans, sugar, wheat, barley, cotton, milk, sorghum, sunflowers, canola, dry peas and lentils, rice and peanuts.

Groups representing crop insurance, the Farm Credit Council, and Growth Energy also signed on, as well as one input supplier, Syngenta.

The House has already passed a 2012 appropriations bill for agriculture that includes cuts to discretionary spending that are bigger than cuts elsewhere in the federal government, Johnson said. The Senate has not passed its version of a spending bill.

Some examples include a 24% cut to the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, a major source of research dollars for land grant universities. USDA’s Agricultural Research Service was cut by almost 21%.  Those cuts are over two years, from the 2010 fiscal year to 2012.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service operating budget was cut by 13%.

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